This cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and organ was commissioned by the Dean and Canons as part of the musical celebrations in honour of the Quincentenary of St George's Chapel, Windsor, and tonight receives its first performance. The title is taken from the sixth chapter of St Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, verse 13, which starts: "Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God…Above all taking the shield of faith." The symbol on the cover of the vocal score is a Christogram, made up of the first two letters of Christ in Greek, c and r. It was additionally the symbol of birth and resurrection.
The poems set in this cantata were selected for me by Canon Stephen Verney, one from each of the five centuries. The first, by William Dunbar (1460-1520) is a triumphal battle hymn exulting in the defeat of the Devil, and the resurrection of Christ. At the end of this the two soloists, unaccompanied, declaim a setting of the words Gloria in excelsis Deo. The second poem is by George Herbert (1593-1633). This beautiful poem must have been set by many. Luckily I do not know them or I should not have felt so free to try one myself. The guilty soul is pardoned, and invited, with Love, to partake of the Sacrament.
In the third poem (an extract from An Essay on Man) by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) we enter the region of scepticism. Is man a god or a beast? Pope gives a scathing account of a man's life; there is no Shield of Faith here, only the cold comfort that God is wiser than we are. In the fourth poem from In Memoriam by Tennyson (1804-1892) we seem to glimpse 'the dark night of the soul'. I asked Canon Verney to provide me with something of an agnostic nature here, as a contrast to the blazing faith of the final poem. I feel that the hopeless 'Behold, we know not anything' gives the right feeling; Tennyson indeed hopes for reassureance 'at last - far off' but the whole excerpt seems to suggest that the hope is in vain.
The fifth and last poem comes from Little Gidding, the fourth of the Four Quartets by T. S. Elio (1888-1965). It forms the coda to the whole sequence of the Quartets. Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire was, in the second quarter of the 17th century, the home of Nicholas Ferrar's religious community. Charles I visited it in 1646 shortly before he surrendered to the Scots army at Newark. He had been there before and in his troubles he lamented the peaceful hours he spent there. "Very privately, in the darkness of the night he came once more to Gidding." (Carter, in his Nichols Ferrar). I paid a visit to the chapel some ten years ago. It is very remote and quiet. An aroma of sanctity still clings to it.
I have read these Quartets (mostly aloud) many times. I do not presume fully to have their meaning, but their magnificence expresses itself in a rapturous acceptance of belief, ending in the Dantesque vision of the union of divine and human love.
This cantata is dedicated by Gracious Permission to Her Majesty the Queen.
© Sir Arthur Bliss